Been on a Jethro Tull kick today, listening to a playlist that spans from their first album This Was up to Leaves to Branches in the early ’90s. And that got me thinking, for some odd reason, about the contrast between Ian Anderson’s humanistic artist side and his longtime reputation as a standoffish egotistical control freak – a side of Anderson that inadvertently created heavy metal as we know it.
Anderson’s musical chops are indisputable. Likewise is his phenomenal compositional genius, an inspired work-ethic revealed when you consider that the band’s prime included 10 more or less classic studio albums – all of which were composed and produced end-to-end, by Anderson – released between 1970 and 1980 [*1] while touring constantly. Anderson also produced albums for Steeleye Span and other artists during that period, and went on to release several more albums before slowing Tull down in the mid-’80s and yet still cracking the Top 40 and swiping the first heavy metal Grammy from Metallica in 1988. That’s not even counting the farm he bought to “relax” when he wasn’t on the road. The guy has an infamous attitude, but he’s kinda earned the right to it.
I was listening to the compassionate and obviously heartfelt lyrics to “The Flying Dutchman” (from Stormwatch, one of my all-time favorites) and comparing them to the artist’s infamous rep. Anderson’s prickly mood is clear from interviews and performance footage, as well as from the dozens of musicians who have cycled in and out of Tull during the last four-and-a-half decades since their first release. Like I said, he’s earned the right to that temperament, and I certainly know plenty about the potential gulfs between an artist’s work, their public persona, and their inner self. I know that I can come across as brusque, temperamental, and even egotistical, and probably came across that way earlier this evening during a discussion about what being a “writer” means [*2]. That’s not how I see myself, but I know that impression can manifest itself and I totally understand how Ian Anderson might feel the same way. Whatever his external attitude might be, his heart is obvious from his art.
And yet, in a weird sort of way, that attitude led to the creation of heavy metal music. For although various bands and artists had been “heavy” before them [*3], I count the Ground Zero of heavy metal at Black Sabbath’s debut album. And that album would not have happened if Tony Iommi had stayed with Jethro Tull.
In his autobiography Iron Man, Sabbath’s chief “spiral architect” recalls that Tull had a record gig, budding fame, and a killer reputation when their original guitarist Mick Abrams quit (or was pushed – accounts differ). Iommi was offered the gig, and took it for a single performance on The Rolling Stones Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus. After that, despite the dismal prospects Sabbath (then called Earth) had at the time, he quit Tull over his distaste for Ian Anderson’s behavior. As a result, Sabbath became the dark fountain of heavy metal music, and Martin Barre (who had the patience to collaborate with Anderson for over 30 years) joined the band, blazing his own trail with the classic riff and solo from “Aqualung” – still, to my mind, one of the finest guitar solos in rock history, and one Barre continued to innovate upon for decades afterward, rather than preserve in recorded stasis forever.
So yeah… listening to Tull’s prodigious and often ponderous [*4] output for hours on end, I wound up musing on the odd tracks that art and music take, most especially when the people who create them both are too brilliant to be mere mortals and too flawed to be ideals.
Thanks, Ian. And thanks, Tony. The world of music would be poorer if you two had gotten along with each other.
FOOTNOTES OF DOOOOOOOM!!!!
* 1 – Aqualung, Thick as a Brick, A Passion Play, Minstrel in the Gallery, Warchild, Too Old To Rock ‘n’ Roll (Too Young to Die), Songs From the Wood, Heavy Horses, Stormwatch, and A. That’s not counting a live album, two best-ofs, a ton of singles, the aborted “Chateau D’saster” album, and the attempted solo album that eventually became A. Ian must have had some top-grade coke that decade, as not even workaholic David Bowie can match that output at the time.
* 2 – For the record, I feel that a “writer” must WRITE. Not necessarily publish, get paid, create enduring art, or move X number of copies, but actually put in the work involved in the act of writing. I got rather vehement about that point, and some folks got upset at me for that, but I stand by my contention. Talk is cheap. Art is work.
* 3 – Led Zeppelin, Blue Cheer, the Kinks, the Who, Jimi Hendrix, Coven, Link Wray, and of course Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (among other artists) had all laid the foundations for metal before Sabbath released their debut. But no other artist, in my opinion, had fused the sinister alchemy of metal quite the way Sabbath did until their release.
*4 – But not, despite the carping of critics for the last 40-someodd years, “pretentious.” It’s only pretension if you don’t actually have the goods. Prick though he might be, Ian Anderson certainly does.